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Kenneth Kaunda and AIDS

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Kenneth Kaunda was Zambia's first president. He led his country to independence from Great Britain and ruled Zambia for 27 years. He was often seen as more of a patriarch than a dictator. Kaunda stepped down peacefully from power in 1991. His legacy is mixed: a fragile democracy beset by a depleted economy, and now Zambia must grapple with AIDS, one of the worst epidemics in history. But unlike many African leaders who shun the frightful stigma of AIDS, Kenneth Kaunda has waged an early and public fight against the disease. Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON reporting:

In full bluster, Kenneth Kaunda is mesmerizing: a high, round forehead and intense gaze, a face of living history that once stared out from the country's crumpled currency, the kwacha. Up close and personal, he loses little of the aura that kept him in power 27 years.

Former President KENNETH KAUNDA (Zambia): Where's my guitar?

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE AND WHISTLES

WILSON: On a late December afternoon, he sings and tells stories to hundreds of orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS and who have traveled to Lusaka, Zambia's capital, to petition the government for help.

Mr. KAUNDA: The song I'm about to sing is something about a family whose parents perished, and they left two children, a girl and a boy. They left them some magic powers.

SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE TALKING

Mr. KAUNDA: Now the young man had the power to carry a whole buffalo on one finger, and then the sister had the power to separate the water in the river, and her brother could cross the river. So the sister would sing, the brother crosses the river, and when they sing again, the water begins to flow and the enemy could not cross. Well, what happened? I'll tell you after the song.

WILSON: The story is a lesson about how the orphans must work together and what happens when they don't. It could very well serve as a parable for Kaunda's own long rule, one that was often contentious, but managed to hold together 73 disparate tribal groups while flanked on nearly all sides by hostile countries. Face to face, a subdued Kaunda grasps in his palm his trademark, a brilliant white linen handkerchief, a symbol chosen during his imprisonment under British colonial rule, that he flourishes when he talks like a chieftain's whisk, an asterisk, an exclamation point.

Mr. KAUNDA: We were fighting for independence. I thought to myself in prison what symbol shall I have so that when I'm waving to the people I'm saying, `God bless you,' to the unbelievers I'm saying, `Peace be unto you.' (Unintelligible) So I thought, a white handkerchief was most ideal.

WILSON: And you've never worried that someone might mistake it for, you know, the white flag of surrender?

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Mr. KAUNDA: There can be no surrender with eyes closed. Truth comes.

WILSON: When independence came, the story goes, there were 100 university graduates and three doctors and the whole country, so Zambia's first government built schools, colleges, clinics, hospitals and roads, it was a one-party socialist state, but Kaunda was the power. He nationalized the industries, took control of the country's vast mineral holdings, mainly the copper mines. All of it was run by a government bureaucracy that left Zambia saddled with debt, impoverished and its economy a wreck.

Mr. KAUNDA: We set out to develop our country. I don't know whether one would say there was anything too great in a feat like that. We produced many, many, many medical doctors. We produced thousands and thousands of teachers. Of course, one might say we had subsidized consumption for a bit too long. Well, I'm sure there must be some things we didn't or shouldn't have done the way we did them, but I think if I sat down to think I might find quite a few.

WILSON: In 1991, the Zambian people decided it was time for Kaunda to go. As he was stepping down, the specter of AIDS was already rising. Nearly a fifth of the country's adults would become infected by the virus, so before he left office, Kaunda did something no other African leader has since done.

Mr. KAUNDA: I called up a press conference and announced my son had died of AIDS.

WILSON: Nothing, he says, has been so devastating to his soul.

Mr. KAUNDA: He was ...(unintelligible) out of six children. I'm looking for those kids. I've lost many grandchildren, many nephews to AIDS. I can't think of any one man, any one woman who has not lost relatives to the pandemic.

WILSON: And yet few African leaders have made such a personal connection to AIDS, so Kaunda gets asked to talk about AIDS all over the world, to university audiences in America and philanthropic organizations in Europe. Perhaps if they are moved enough, they will find money to pour in to one of his many projects: shelters for orphans, school fees to educate children and radio stations that, in Kaunda's words, will break the silence that keeps Africa in the grip of AIDS.

SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR

Mr. KAUNDA: (Singing in foreign language)

WILSON: On this day, Kaunda uses words and song to warn the young orphans seated around him against the dangers of giving in to the sullen despair of loss. A thoughtful little girl sits and listens. Twelve-year-old Sharon Cheway(ph) moved in with her grandmother and several cousins who had also been orphaned when she lost her father and then her mother from complications related to AIDS. Through a translator, she talks about her anger and her sadness.

SHARON CHEWAY: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: She says her mother was suffering from TB. What happened was when she woke up in the morning, she was getting ready to go to school, so when Sharon went to her room, the mother's bedroom, she tried to wake up her mother to find out where her clothes had been. So after she tried to wake her mother up, her mother couldn't wake up.

CHEWAY: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: She says since her mother passed away, she's always being mistreated at home. Every time she comes from school, the grandmother always ask her to get all the washing in the house, take it to the lake and wash it. And she's not given any food at all by the grandmother until the grandfather comes back. That's when she's able to eat. So she's not happy in her life.

WILSON: In Zambia alone, at least half a million children have neither mother nor father and depend on relatives and friends whose patience sometimes gets stretched. Throughout Africa, millions are caught up in this grim struggle and thousands of AIDS workers are trying to help. Kaunda's hoping that people will see his many years in government as a plus and think about giving to his Children of Africa Foundation.

Mr. KAUNDA: 'Cause nobody going to say that to me. When I was in government, I stole. No, I didn't. It's clearly good. I'm proud of that. I'm a very proud poor man. And I would make some more sacrifices. We need others to sacrifice, also, for the sake of Africa, for the good of Africa. Come and help fight AIDS, otherwise the continent will perish.

WILSON: Like the brother in the song who ran off with the buffalo and abandoned his sister, when he needed her again, she was no longer there.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC

Mr. KAUNDA: (Singing in foreign language)

WILSON: Not quite lost in the crowd of children gathered around Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, Sharon Cheway sits, and for the first time that day, she smiles. Brenda Wilson, NPR News, Lusaka. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.